A stand off between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority(AMSA) and Taiwanese shipping company Yang Ming over the clean up of containers lost overboard off the YM Efficiency near Newcastle in June last year, could lead to court action.
On 1 June, 2018, the Liberian flagged container vessel lurched and rolled heavily in wild weather 16 nautical miles off the coast of Newcastle en-route to Port Botany, Sydney, jettisoning 81 containers into the ocean.
Three container loads of debris washed onto beaches over the following weeks. However, to date only 49 of the remaining 79 containers have been located.
AMSA general manager, Mark Morrow, told local media AMSA was preparing to launch legal action after the ship owner and insurer implied that the remaining containers should stay on the ocean floor.
The containers were debris or wreckage, not pollution, a spokesperson for Yang Ming and their insurers told SAS.
“Being partially embedded (and) increasingly covered with sand, the containers and cargo are in a relatively stable condition,” he said, “but most are in a damaged condition at depths of over 100m in open water. The risk (of moving them) is too great.”
Yang Ming believes attempts to retrieve the containers would cause them to break open further polluting beaches.
While recognising that moving some of the containers would be difficult to do without causing pollution, AMSA is insisting the clean up continue in consultation with industry. Morrow argues that much of the cargo on the ocean floor threatens to release micro plastics and cause environmental damage.
“When 81 containers are dropped onto the seafloor close to popular beaches and commercial fishing areas, you’re talking about a major pollution incident,” Morrow told SAS, “and just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean that it doesn’t constitute pollution.”
“We’ll take whatever steps are necessary – including court action if required – to fund that clean up,” he said.
AMSA told local media it initiated a AUD500,000 (USD350,000) inspection of the containers after Yang Ming failed to act. Insurers were initially reluctant to pay for the costs of the search.
Two outstanding invoices were only paid after the dispute reached the media, according to the Newcastle Herald.
“AMSA believes cases like YM Efficiency, the recent Solomon Trader oil spill and the Cape Upstart spill of four years ago demonstrate that shippers and insurers need to move faster to accept liability and involve themselves sooner in response efforts,” the AMSA general manager told SAS.
Yang Ming denies it had not respond promptly, having deployed clean up crews on the beach within 12 hours of the debris coming a shore.
“As regards [to the] deep-water containers, we appointed a sonar searching contractor within 14 days and they commenced work with[in] 21 days,” their spokesperson told SAS.
“Contractors have since scanned and searched over 400 square kilometres of ocean and that scanning continues,” he added, “we have also paid for the ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle), which investigates potential targets identified by those sonar searches. Inevitably it takes time to mobilise qualified personnel and such sophisticated equipment with weather also being a factor. Nevertheless, throughout we have acted as quickly as possible.”